Site profile: Pier 21

 Most immigrants moved seamlessly, and with good memories, out of Pier 21, through the overhead walkways and into the separate Immigration Annex where they collected their baggage from Customs, their tickets and train to their new home and, if necessary, their wits, with the help of the religious and social agencies stationed there for their relief and succor.

Pier 21: Commemorative Integrity Statement, [1]

Lead photograph by Letterofmarque, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Pier 21 has been called the “Gateway to Canada.” Between 1928 and 1971, Pier 21 had more than 1 million immigrants pass through its doors, drawing comparisons to New York’s Ellis Island. The building has seen a host of stories and continues to tell compelling narratives to this day.

History and Immigration

1919 elevations of the central office bay and sheds 21 and 22. Image consulted via Halifax Port Authority (unaccessioned collection).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Canada was welcoming 400,000 immigrants a year, 25% of them coming through Halifax, the major point of entry on the Atlantic.[2] Despite grand plans for an immigration facility in the early decades of the century, Pier 21 was built as a 2-storey immigration shed with steel framing and a concrete floor, replacing a facility that had been greatly damaged by the Halifax explosion of 1917. The larger Pier complex included grain elevators, a hospital, the Red Cross, and much more, welcoming immigrants and preparing them for settlement or further journeys by rail. The several cargo sheds that made up this complex operated as a single building, separated simply by internal fire walls.[3] A canteen at the site was where many new immigrants purchased food before they boarded trains to their new homes.[4] Those wishing to immigrate to the US could use the American immigration facilities in the Central Bay, adjacent to Pier 21.[5]

New arrivals in the Immigration Examination Hall, Pier 21, March 1952. Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque collection/Library and Archives Canada.

The second floor of the shed hosted the immigration facilities, described as bright and clean both day and night due to large windows, bright lighting, and polished benches.[6] Immigrants were separated into two categories, “foreigners” and “British.” They would further be separated into dormitories or detention spaces, the prior reserved for approved immigrants taking short stays before continuing on, and the latter to hold those deemed to be security risks. The large windows, celebrated for their light, were barred in these spaces to prevent escapes.[7] Many felt that they were being held against their will, even if not kept in spaces specifically denoted as “detention” rooms. Some detainees spent months watching trains depart while they waited for approval to too begin their new lives.[8] The detainment spaces included recreation areas, which sometimes included celebrations of holidays, as was the case for Baltic refugees held over Christmas one year.[9]

Partial layout of the immigration facilities, as proposed in 1926. Plan consulted by Halifax Port Authority (unaccessioned collection.)

The Canadian Government took over the facility in 1939, deploying some 500,000 servicemen during the Second World War through Pier 21, and receiving groups such as German Prisoners of War. In 1944, the facility suffered a fire and was partially reconstructed through 1946. Pier 21 has seen many stories of immigration tied to world events. Post-war, 60,000 children and war brides arrived through the facility, as a result of servicemen’s postings across Europe.[10] The war also meant many displaced people arrived through the facility, many Holocaust survivors moving to a new world. Due to the increase in air travel beginning in the 1960s, immigrants were arriving in Canada more and more by air, and Pier 21 shuttered its doors in 1971.

S.S. BERLIN of North German Lloyd, arriving from Bremerhaven, Pier 21, April 20, 1957. Wetmore/Library and Archives Canada.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Photograph by Taxiarchos228, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of the site after its closure is an interesting one. In the late 1980s, the building was recognized as a unique and specialised building type, but was merely commemorated by a plaque noting the site’s importance in post-war immigration in 1993. By 1996, Pier 21 was declared a national historic site. [11] The site was altered over the next several years, controversially removing some architectural elements to “support the commemorative intent for the site.” [12]

Photograph by Skeezix1000, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened in 2011. The current museum is housed in a brick pavilion which separates Piers 21 and 22 [13], hosting interactive exhibits where visitors can engage with the site, re-enact stories of immigration, and learn about the changes to immigration processes throughout the years. The museum also curates an archive of materials associated with the site, as well as collects oral histories from immigrants, immigration officers, and many more.

Photograph by Skeezix1000, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Canada, Parks Canada, Pier 21: Commemorative Integrity Statement, (Halifax, N.S.: Parks Canada, 2004), p. 11.

[2] Paul Bishop, “Pier 21,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, last edited April 30, 2015, accessed Nov 19, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pier-21.

[3] Parks Canada, Pier 21, pp. 9-10.

[4] Canada, Employment and Immigration Canada (Commission), Nova Scotia Region, Public Affairs, The Pier 21 Story: Halifax 1924-1971, (Halifax, N.S.: Employment and Immigration Canada, 1978), p. 6.

[5] Parks Canada, Pier 21, p. 11.

[6] Employment and Immigration Canada, The Pier 21 Story, p. 5.

[7] Steve Schwinghamer, “Exploring Pier 21’s Immigration Quarters,” The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, accessed Nov 19, 2020, https://pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/exploring-pier-21-s-immigration-quarters.

[8] Excerpt of a quotation by Jackie Eisen, https://pier21.ca/research/immigration-history/exploring-pier-21-s-immigration-quarters. Full interview: Jackie Eisen, interviewed by Amy Coleman, 16 July 2003, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 Oral History Collection, 03.07.16JE, 00:24:03.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bishop, “Pier 21,” https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pier-21.

[11] Parks Canada, Pier 21, pp. 5-6.

[12] Ibid., p. 1.

[13] Ibid., p. 10.

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